Robbie Neilson admitted he was devastated by Hearts’ defeat in the UEFA Europa League qualifiers as Birkirkara advanced to the Third Qualifying Round.
After Prince Buaben missed a first-half penalty, two goals early in the second half put the Maltese outfit in the driving seat. Conor Sammon’s first Hearts goal reduced the arrears, but the damage was done and the visitors held on for the win.
“We’re obviously devastated by the result,” said Neilson. “We hit the bar twice, and missed the penalty, and in European football these fine margins cost you because you can be hit by a sucker punch.
“We’re a young team and a young coaching team too, and we need to try and learn from the mistakes we’ve made on nights like this one, because it’s no good for anybody.
When asked if the missed penalty was the crucial moment of the match, the head coach said the tie was still alive and in the balance, but the loss of the crucial away goal following the failure to score in Malta was what cost his side.
“The turning point was losing the first goal,” he continued. “You can’t give away cheap goals in Europe at home, and we’ve paid the ultimate price as a result. If we’d scored early, maybe we’d have won comfortably.”
“It took us a full year’s work to get into Europe, but we’ve lost, so now the work begins to ensure we’re here again next season.
“European football is a great thing to be involved in but we haven’t managed to go as far as we’d like, so now the focus is on Celtic and the first game of the season.
“The league is our bread and butter, we need to do well in the league if we want to see the club continue to make strides and progress, because we want to be back in Europe.”